The phoebes are back. This is a bird whose vocalization is its own name: “Fee-bee. . . fee-bee.”

The foot-long ledge under the eave of our screen house has hosted a moss-covered phoebe nest for the past six or so years.

While it would be unusual for a phoebe to live that long, it’s not impossible. Bird banding has helped unlock secrets of bird migration, territories, and age.

The phoebe, a rather drab smudge-colored bird, holds a special place in bird banding history. In the early 19th century, young John James Audubon* noticed that a pair of phoebes showed up at his father’s Pennsylvania farm each spring. The budding teen naturalist wondered if they were the same birds. So to help identify the birds he captured the pair and tied a short piece of silver thread around their legs.

In the fall the phoebes left and he wondered if they would come back the next spring. Lo and behold, the following April, two phoebes showed up, each with a duller piece of silver thread wrapped around its leg.

Audubon’s experiment in marking the phoebes gave rise to the practice of bird banding using lightweight aluminum instead of thread.

I have banded hundreds of songbirds, including phoebes. To capture the birds, federally licensed banders stretch a forty-foot long and seven- foot tall mist net in locations where birds are apt to pass, such as thickly vegetated cover or along the edge of habitats. The nets are erected and taken down daily.

I recall a memorable day when we untangled a cantankerous chickadee from the net. The bird we removed had already been banded. It wore a tiny, lightweight aluminum band around its leg. With the help of a magnifying glass we could read the stamped identification numbers. We were mightily surprised that the little fellow had worn the band for 11 years! Truly a Methuselah among songbirds who rarely experience five years.

While banding we record data such as age, sex, wing length, breeding readiness or status of incubating. We send this information to the federal banding laboratory operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service. If the bird is recaptured by a licensed bander or found dead by anybody, that person can call the phone number noted on the band and help unravel a part of the bird’s life history.

Once I caught an ovenbird, a small woodland warbler, on May 30th. The bird had recently returned to Minnesota after spending the winter in southern Mexico or Central America. I carefully untangled it and carried it in a cloth bag to the banding table to get the bird processed and banded.

Unlike most warblers, sometimes referred to as the “butterflies of the bird world” because of their bright coloration, the ovenbird is fairly inconspicuous. Its back is olive-green and it has a heavily spotted breast making it ideal camouflage for this ground-nesting bird.

I banded the bird and released it.

The following year, I caught a banded ovenbird in the same thick swale. I was excited to discover it was the same bird I had banded the previous year. But what made it most remarkable was that it was exactly one year later, May 30th in exactly the same location!

The following year I did not catch it. No surprise as migration is extremely dangerous and life expectancy is low.

But on spring number three we recaptured the bird in the same net location, on May 31st.

In the four years that we had our relationship, the banded ovenbird, weighing an ounce, had migrated back and forth from Minnesota to its tropical wintering grounds eight times, covering roughly 4,000 miles with each trip.

As spring unfolds into more bird song and daily phoebe nest building duties, I really want to push aside the taboo of anthropomorphism or designating human qualities to animals, and allow myself to believe that the loud dawn bird chorus is all about a joyful homecoming.

It’s not. But spring is so ephemeral that we get to believe anything is possible.


*Audubon eventually became a renowned naturalist and wildlife painter. He would become best known for his oversized, four-volume set of bird paintings. Titled the Birds of America, the set stood over three feet tall and each volume weighed sixty pounds. He included the phoebe, painted in Louisiana, among the 435 species illustrated. Two hundred sets of the hand colored sets were completed between 1827-1838. Amazingly 134 of the original sets remain. Not surprising they have increased in value. The original cost was $1000 per set. In recent years one set sold at auction for over nine million dollars!



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